Friday, December 2, 2022

Year of musical introspection: Ukraine's best albums of 2021

by Artur KorniienkoDecember 29, 2021 5:17 pm
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Ukrainian artist Stas Koroliov presents his debut solo album, O_x, at the Caribbean Club in Kyiv on June 24, 2021. (Stas Koroliov / Facebook)

The second year of the pandemic has been productive for Ukrainian musicians across the board. We heard many new names, especially in rap and electronic music, but established artists also stepped up with plenty of new pop, alternative and indie rock.

Besides giving them more time to record, another year of quarantine restrictions seems to have made Ukrainian artists more introspective in their music. We picked seven of our favorite Ukrainian albums this year, along with a few honorable mentions.

О_х – Stas Koroliov (alternative, spoken word)

Few Ukrainian artists reflect earnestly on Russia’s war in their music, and none are as outspoken as Stas Koroliov on his debut album. A Russian speaker from the frontline town of Avdiivka who avoided politics in his previous projects now clearly states his opinions and invites audiences to sing along at shows: "My country is at war with Russia."

But it’s about so much more than that. In the lyric-heavy songs, Koroliov recites rather than raps about his traumas, addictions, struggles as an artist, and his past emotional abuse of his now-wife. His sincerity draws the listener in, while the music is a mix of genres that is hard to pinpoint.

The closest Ukrainian reference is Vagonovozhatye, a band that is featured in one song and also released its own excellent record this year.

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Kolir – Onuka (electronic folk)

Ukraine’s most impactful music duo, comprised of frontwoman Nata Zhyzhchenko and her husband producer Yevhen Filatov, the core members of electro-folk band Onuka, released their most intimate record yet. It is a well-honed mix of electronics with orchestra and Ukrainian folk instruments. Though the formula hasn’t changed, it sounds better than ever.

On some of the tracks, Zhyzhchenko comes back to social issues like chaotic high-rise construction and lack of inclusivity for people with disabilities – again with a voice that is cold and robotic. However, her vocals open up in lyrical songs inspired by her experience of becoming a mother.

Another album inspired by themes of parenting this year is "My" by Jamala, though she sounds more interesting on her newest "5:45" electronic mini-album.

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Odyn v kanoe – Odyn v kanoe (indie rock, pop, experimental)

The instantly recognizable indie band made fans wait five long years for their second studio album, eponymous like the first. They released it unannounced overnight, giving fans just what they wanted – more of Iryna Shvaidak's haunting vocals, ornate poetry, and acoustic arrangements.

But there are also a few experiments, like when the electric guitar sounds like a gong on the first track. The feelings of isolation and anxiety persist throughout the entire record, culminating with the outstanding "U mene nemaye domu" single.

Odyn v kanoe later released a single about their hometown Lviv with Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who also released lyrically florid album called "Oranzhereya" this year.

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Straytones – Magic Green River Swimmin’ & Stunning Tarzanka Experience (psychedelic, garage rock)

From the chunky riffs, versatile vocals, and melodic digressions on the very first song of this record, fans of 1960s psychedelic rock will know that they are in for a treat. The fourth release of this Kyiv band in ten years is pure joy, steeped in the genre’s tradition and in tune with its contemporary tendencies.

Released in late August, it's as if the album absorbed the sun’s energy over the summer and passed it on in songs about love, happiness and rebirth. There are heavy thumpers and quieter musical trips, both feel energetic and perfectly arranged. 

Another rock record worth mentioning came from an unexpected place this year – electronic trip-hop artist Dakooka made "31006," her heaviest and gloomiest album yet.

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Kurgan & Agregat – Zembondzhu (disco, funk, hip-hop)

Ukraine’s most entertaining trash rappers have undergone a huge change in style with their full-fledged disco funk record made with producer Serhiy Soroka, who is even featured on the cover. The trio have managed to retain their humor and charisma, even with only one swear word on the entire record.

Their signature surzhyk, a dialect that mixes Ukrainian and Russian, also remains and flourishes, adding dimensions and sincerity to whatever they rap and sing about: buying a coffee in their home village in eastern Ukraine, having an affair with an older woman, or being paranoid (probably on drugs).

But the best song on the album is a feature with Latexfauna, an indie pop band that also masterfully utilizes surzhyk and that is set to release a new album in April with a show.

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Roma Mike – Roma Mike (hip-hop, rap, R&B)

Although it’s his first solo album, from the measured way Roma Mike raps it becomes clear that he has been in the game for a while. A member of the little-known Echelon duo from Volodymyr in western Ukraine, he may have finally come out of the underground with Ukraine’s best hip-hop album of the year.

Part of its charm is that the rapper doesn’t shy away from lyricism and romance in songs bordering on R&B, where he can actually sing in his raspy sexy voice. There are only a few aggressive hip-hop bangers, while the rest is a confident, well-delivered rap with interesting jazz arrangements.

There was a strong rap showing this year, with diva Alina Pash releasing her folk-inspired experimental "RozMova," and the anonymous Krechet project churning out two albums – "Ukrainostan" and "Zodiac."

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Koloah – Millennium Sun (electronic, techno, ambient)

There are many sides of contemporary electronic music which can be found on the new record by Kyiv-based DJ and producer Dmitriy Avksentiev, known by his aliases Koloah and Voin Oruwu. It’s techno that you can dance to, but it’s best suited for quiet contemplation of the state of the world and its future.

With beats, glitches and synthesizers, Koloah paints sound landscapes of an urban metropolis, majestic scenes of nature, and infinite outer space. A neurotic mood prevails, but it leads to a glorious moment of relief. 

In his Voin Oruwu persona and in collaboration with French digital artist Simon Kounovsky, Avksentiev also created an audiovisual album, "Inertia," about the things that are destroying our planet.

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Artur Korniienko
Artur Korniienko
Culture reporter

Artur Korniienko is a culture writer at the Kyiv Independent. He previously reported on Ukrainian literature, art, music, film and social issues for the Kyiv Post, including the controversial Babyn Yar memorial and other development projects opposed by the community. In 2021, he ran a podcast about Ukrainian migrant workers for RFE/RL on the Vaclav Havel Fellowship in Prague. With a Master's in Journalism from the Ukrainian Catholic University, Korniienko had also worked as a freelance journalist and a TV correspondent.

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